Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening – whichever is applicable to you. The overwhelming majority of major league players have the potential to generate fantasy value. Major league players are the best of the best. Sometimes the difference of being a must-own commodity and a fantasy afterthought is as simple as opportunity. Each and every season many forgotten names become relevant performers. Some hitters may have a month-long stretch, some may last a week. The difference between being irrelevant and irreplaceable is ones production in regards to others, and the consistency in which said production can be expected.
I always find it interesting to filter player rankings for various time frames. One week, fourteen days, and one month will often produce some unexpected names. Over the last 30 Days 3 starting pitchers have caught my eye; Matt Shoemaker, Zach Davies, and James Paxton. All three have produced at a high level over the last month, resulting in irreplaceable production over that span. All three have also produced face-cringing results in the past, which at the time made them irrelevant. Naturally one has to wonder what the future holds for these three rotation arms. Have they turned that proverbial corner, or are we simply in the midst of another flirtation with relevance?
Davies had three starts in April, and by the end of the month he was sitting with an 8.78 ERA over 13.1 less than stellar innings. His WHIP was a robust 2.25, with the walks especially unkind, posting a 4.73 BB/9. Once the calendar flipped to May, Davies was reborn. In 8 starts he’s posted a 2.55 ERA with a 0.90 WHIP over 49.1 solid innings of work. His BB/9 has improved to 2.19 during that span, and hitters are batting a mere .184 against with an OPS of .585.
His pitch mix and velocity has remained consistent all season; it’s simply getting better results at this point. So what should we expect moving forward? His recent success can likely be attributed to simply executing better. Davies’ skill set isn’t the overpowering type. His fastball velocity averages below 90, however he still manages respectable K ratios. If Davies can continue to produce solid BB/9 numbers combined with his ground ball tendencies, I see no reason to suggest Davies cannot be an important part of your rotation for the stretch run.
Shoemaker has been here before. In 2014 he produced a 16 Win season with a 3.04 ERA. At the age of 27, Shoemaker was considered a late bloomer and had plenty of Fantasy Owners, including myself, excited about what was to come in 2015 – he must have failed to get the memo. A 4.46 ERA combined with a 1.25 WHIP over 135.1 innings made for a rather forgettable season and led to Shoemaker becoming an irrelevant fantasy option.
Prior to the start of 2016 it was no guarantee that Shoemaker would even have a rotation spot. An early injury to Wilson, and later Richards and Heaney, supplied Shoemaker the opportunity to take the ball every five days, with a rather lengthy leash to hang himself. Over the course of April, Shoemaker did his best to challenge the Angels’ patience, posting a 9.15 ERA with a 1.88 WHIP over 20.2 innings. Hitters managed a .322 BAA and .986 OPS during that span. Adding to the misery was a 4.35 BB/9 and a K/9 of 6.96, neither offering much hope for a resurgence.
Since the misery of April, Shoemaker has posted a 2.85 ERA with a 1.01 WHIP. Most impressively his K/9 has improved to 10.27, and his BB/9 has been just 0.76. Meanwhile hitters have managed a .243 BAA with an OPS of just .583. While Davies’ improvements seem to be the results of better execution, Shoemaker’s improvements can be traced back to an uptick in velocity, in addition to a new pitch mix. Shoemaker began the season hitting 90-91 on his Fastball, yet during the recent run of success that number has been 92-93 MPH. During the middle of May, Shoemaker began throwing his change-up between 43-62% of the time, where prior to that Shoemaker featured that pitch 15-33% of the time. The latter has resulted in a 2.28 ERA with a .92 WHIP.
On June 21st, Shoemaker abandoned a seldom used knuckle-curve. Over those five starts since, Shoemaker has posted a 1.88 ERA and 0.83 WHIP along with a stellar 48-1 K/BB ratio over 38.1 innings. I can’t help but to be excited about Shoemaker moving forward. While this recent level of production will be hard to maintain, I find it easier to validate improved results when a clear reference point has been established. The numbers certainly would suggest that the changes Shoemaker has made thus far greatly improved the player he had become.
While Paxton has never been labeled a Top-10 prospect type, he would be the most highly touted prospect on this list. Paxton’s career has been somewhat odd thus far. He debuted in 2013, and over the course of four starts he managed to post a 1.50 ERA and 0.92 WHIP while the opposition managed a meager .172 BAA. Injuries cost Paxton an extended look in 2014 as he managed only 13 starts. Still, Paxton managed a solid 3.04 ERA with a 1.20 WHIP, and the opposition hit just .220 against him.
The 2015 season followed the same script as Paxton managed only 13 major league starts, but this time the results were a little less desirable with a 3.90 ERA, a 1.43 WHIP, and a .250 batting average against. While some of his numbers were optimistic, Paxton had failed to recapture his minor league strikeout totals, and his control issues had shown no signs of improvement. Combine these issues with a lack of an extended look and it was understandable to disregard Paxton as a serious rotation option.
Like Shoemaker, injuries have opened up an opportunity for Paxton. In four starts since replacing Felix Hernandez, Paxton has pitched 22 innings with a 2.86 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP. While the WHIP isn’t desirable, there are still positive signs as Paxton has managed an 11.86 K/9 and has shown improved control posting a 2.45 BB/9. In addition, Paxton has still managed to maintain his ground ball approach producing nearly a 50% ground ball rate.
Much like Shoemaker, Paxton’s improvements can easily be found in the data. In his previous major league stints Paxton had an average velocity just below 95 mph. This season his average fastball velocity is nearly 98. I laugh at those who reference one MPH changes in velocity, but a three MPH increase certainly gets my attention. Oddly enough the three MPH fastball change may not be the biggest difference maker for Paxton, as he has been throwing a Cutter 22.5% of the time (his career mark is 6.6%). The increase in cutters has cut down on both his fastball and changeup use. Perhaps this decrease in quantity has improved the quality in terms of velocity. Should that be the case, it would be reasonable to suggest that the velocity uptick is sustainable.
While there is plenty to like with Paxton, the 1.55 WHIP offers pause. Sure, it’s encouraging that walks are not the driving force behind it, but the reality is that despite the high strikeout totals, Paxton has been rather hittable. Should this continue to improve, he could have the most upside among this group. On the flip side, should the WHIP remain this problematic, Paxton could feature the most damaging numbers of the bunch.
The path to MLB super-stardom has many roads. From prospect to late bloomers, there is no cookie-cutter approach that can clone the desired results for one after another. For some, this journey begins with a month-long stretch of games. One month becomes two, two becomes three, and before you know it an irreplaceable part to your roster has emerged.
Zach Davies, Matt Shoemaker, and James Paxton have all took different paths. Davies and Paxton are both young while Shoemaker will be 30 by years end. Davies improved results would seem to have come from simply executing better, Shoemaker and Paxton have changed their pitch mix and have improved velocity to thank. Like so many they’ve produced at the highest level. They find themselves standing on the corner of Irrelevant and Irreplaceable: do they have what it takes to make the turn?
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